The Temptation of Church Analytics: Who Can Resist?

From Saddleback Sam to Target Statisticians

There was a fascinating article a few weeks back about the statistical research methods of Target. Essentially they analyze consumer buying habits to the minute detail so that they can almost predict when a person is going through a life transition (the article talks about the retailer making educated guesses at when women become pregnant and thus susceptible to new buying habits). And it’s not just Target:

Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to investment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them. “But Target has always been one of the smartest at this,” says Eric Siegel, a consultant and the chairman of a conference called Predictive Analytics World. “We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”

Thus, statistics and psychology converge as the analysts take a look at buying habits. For instance, pregnant women will often buy unscented lotion in their second trimester, supplements at 20 weeks, and cotton balls close to delivery (I don’t understand such things…I have cats). But the data supports their conclusions. So Target will send baby-oriented advertising to these customers to try to get them to change their buying habits and start buying more and diverse stuff from Target instead of elsewhere. It’s a big thing for them.

But here’s the key point that we can then extrapolate into the tactics of some megachurches:

The reason Target can snoop on our shopping habits is that, over the past two decades, the science of habit formation has become a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs.

I would add…I wouldn’t put it past particular megachurches to do it too.

For decades, we’ve heard of how megachurches are using scientific approaches to augment their evangelistic approach.

  • Saddleback Church has studied their demographic and their area and determined that all their programming should focus on a caricature of the community: Saddleback Sam.

“Saddleback Sam” is a well educated young urban professional. He is self-satisfied, and comfortable with his life. He likes his job and where he lives. He is affluent, recreation conscious, and prefers the casual and informal over the formal. He is interested in health and fitness, and he thinks he is enjoying life more than 5 years ago, but he is overextended in time and money, and is stressed out. He has some religious background from childhood, but he hasn’t been to church for 15 or 20 years, and he is skeptical of “organized religion.” He doesn’t want to be recognized when he comes to church.

Hunter, How to Reach Secular People, pg 155

  • Before Saddleback was McGavran’s Homogenous Unit Principle approach where, after his experience with India’s caste system, led him to create huuuuge churches that catered to one particular segment of society by not crossing many economic, racial, or ethnic lines.

The homogeneous unit is simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristics in common. Thus a homogeneous unit (or HU, as it is called in church growth jargon) might be a political unit or sub-unit, the characteristic in common being that all the members live within certain geographical confines.

MacGavran,  Understanding Church Growth, pg 95

  • Finally, there’s a hundred megachurches out there that use sociology, psychology, and even neuroscience conclusions to adapt their worship and outreach activities. This is not wrong in my opinion (I use my background and interest in psychology all the time), but the extent of these uses boggles my mind.

So, we ask, what could churches do with statisticians and human habit analysts like Target has?

If I were looking into the future, I could see it being used to evoke both casual omniscience of the pastors and behavioral modification.

  1. What if each parishioner was assigned a unique ID and their giving habits were tied to their prayer requests (collected by recording verbal prayer requests, written ones, and ones reported by their small group leader). When their givings went down or became irregular, and their prayer requests indicate patterns, the pastors can check up on them and ask about them specifically. While shrewd pastors do this regularly, having it in a data sheet showing correlation rather than anecdotal applications takes it up to the next level.
  2. What if a parishioner’s ID was tied to their before-or-after-worship activities. Church video cameras could see lingering conversations between two parishioners at multiple times, to which pastors or lay leaders could use that data to question the couple’s commitments to celibacy or marital fidelity. Horrifying but it’s the logical conclusion of data-mining.
  3. What if a parishioner’s ID tied together their prayer requests and the customized church bulletin they get. If they are dealing with anger, at the top of the “activities this week” is an anger management class. If they are asking for prayers for an alcoholic spouse, they get an Al-Anon meeting note in the bulletin. As long as a church doesn’t make it obvious, then the data application would be invisible and, perhaps, attributed to a “God thing” ie “I was frustrated and felt alone and that church bulletin was exactly what I needed!”

George Barna is quoted as saying “”we can’t make ministry a science: ‘if you do A, B, C, and D, you will definitely get outcome E.’ That removes God from the equation.” I completely agree.

But I wonder if the seduction of the power of data and human behavior analysis might overcome prudence and reliance on our faith and the fidelity of God to even the wandering stiff-necked Hebrew people. Are we entering an age where the mega-churches with their money and resources will be more effective in reaching people simply because they know more about people? Is that knowledge a power that even the most old-school of pastors can’t resist?

I’m not sure. I just worry the same thing I teach every time I lead a workshop on social media and the church: these are tools for ministry and they cannot replace the praxis of ministry. I can see how data analytics could replace some swaths of ministry, but I can’t see it replacing how ministry is done in authentic ways. Unless it’s invisible…done behind closed doors…the recipients unaware of the customization or correlation being done on their habits…in other words, just like Target does it now. o_O



(Image Credit: “365 Days, Day 59” by zampano!!! on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license)
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  1. Nancy says

    Any church that is so big that it must rely on data mining or other impersonal ways of learning about the members of the community, is too big. IMHO.

  2. Michelle says

    This definitely removes God from ministry. Analytics are beneficial but using them to customize certain material makes the church a consumer church. We should not feed into existing behaviors – that leads to isolationism and divisions when there are people that are outside the demographic. I hope my pastor is aware of what’s going on in my life but not in an intrusive or abusive way that gives them and/or church leaders ability to control behavior.

  3. Michelle Panneck says

    As an analytics consultant, I cannot help but see that there are lots of people in our communities who are unreached because the church markets itself in ways that aren’t relevant to their lives. Because our culture thinks of church with the same consumerism that we think of businesses, I think there is benefit to certain kinds of data analysis in reaching and helping those inside and outside of the church.

    As with the healthcare industry, though, there may be sensitive data that exists which is simply unethical by many standards (religious, ethical, legal) to use for analytic purposes. As a matter of basic ethics (if not legality), areas of communication even tangential to “paritioner/parish privileged communication” should be treated as privileged, as this could open a huge legal can of worms for any church if such communication is violated. Data analytics, ultimately, should be used to serve and love the people of the community; any use of church data otherwise violates the basic purpose of the church.

    One area the church would certainly benefit to use is the purchasing of third party data sets (and the use of free data sets online, such as twitter feeds) to create analytic outputs that enable church leaders to make better decisions.

    • Michael says

      As an analytics professional I would agree that freely available or even inexpensive data could be a significant help to churches seeking to grow.

      If analytics could give an evangelist a little bit of information about what a non-believer is struggling with in life it would give them / the church a fighting chance to connect with people, change lives and save souls.

      As a kid growing up I remember going door-to-door with my pastor to tell people in the neighborhood about our church. If (since many people weren’t home) someone answered the door we sometimes couldn’t communicate with them because of a language translation problem. Alternatively, if we did talk to someone, we didn’t know anything about them so now we were just in-person “cold-calling” which isn’t the best way to attract people. They may already attend somewhere else or they were a non-believer who had issues with the church and just didn’t want to talk. We weren’t armed with the information we needed to succeed in connecting with these people.

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